It’s with great pleasure that I turn the blog floor over to novelist and editor Cheri Lasota–talking about…
“Research. Writers either love it or hate it. I’m fair-weather about it. I love it when I find the information I’m looking for, but otherwise…
“Until September 2011, I had been working on the same YA novel, Artemis Rising, for ten years. One of the main reasons it took so long? Research.
“The setting for the novel is little known island out in the Atlantic Ocean around 900 miles from Lisbon. Terceira is the name and it resides cozily in the Azorean Archipelago, a group of nine volcanic islands. Oh, and I just happened to set the story in the 1890s. Oh, and one more thing: the characters all speak Portuguese.
“Sounds fascinating, right?
“Oh, it is and was, but try finding written documents during an era when education had been abolished by the Freemasons for decades. How does one research a place and time where written documents, photographs or even paintings are a rarity?
“Um… carefully. Painstakingly. Frustratingly!
“I made a pact with myself that I had to honor the Azorean people and culture to the best of my ability and knowledge. I’m sure my research wasn’t perfect, but I decided that whenever possible, I’d omit anything I couldn’t back up with solid research. There were times, though, when I had to use my imagination about what life must have been like. Otherwise, the story could not go on.
“When I first started this novel, I was terribly shy and unsure of myself in regard to research. It had been many years since I had lived in the islands and I wasn’t sure how to go about researching a time and place that was so far removed from where I lived. But over the years, I began to find a few resources, notably James H. Guill’s comprehensive A History of the Azores Islands, Sue Falgalde Lick’s Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California and Robert L. Santos’s Azores Islands article.
“There were three major elements of the Azorean culture that I would have been remiss not to include in this novel. The first was easier than the other two—an equestrian bullfight. Years ago, I attended one of these and saw the spectacle of it myself.
“I remember the pulse of the crowd’s excitement as the horse demonstrated dressage techniques to perfection. I remember the visceral snort of the angry bull as he stomped up clouds of dust. I remember the collective gasp of the crowd when the cavaleiro’s horse was gored by the bull’s horns.
“And oh! When the nine-man team of forcados (a.k.a. suicide squad) marched in a long line toward the bull, we were all on the edge of our seats. Would they survive this time? Would they tackle the bull to the ground or would the bull win?
“This I did a great deal of research on, as I wanted to capture that breathless anticipation I had felt that day so many years ago.
“It was difficult trying to uncover whether instruments and music would have been a part of the procession of the people as they marched toward the church in the 1890s. I ended up consulting Ed Lima at the Lajes Field, Azores Air Force Base, as he was cultural liaison to the American military. He gave me some helpful information, which allowed me to feel more confident as I began weaving my own story into this, the most significant of all Azorean rituals.
“Festivals abound throughout the islands and each one focuses on its own particular origins and traditions.
“Finally, another tradition I just had to get into the novel was that of a special type of bullfight found in the Azores Islands and, more specifically, Terceira Island.
“Due to the danger involved, Americans are not allowed to participate in these touradas à corda, as the bull is let loose in the streets. He’s held back only with a rope, and the bravest (or craziest) Azoreans dare to get as close to the bull as they can. Chaos usually ensues.
“I watched a lot of home videos of these events as well as researching travel books, old and new, to get the flavor of the touradas à corda. I had always planned to put my characters in the thick of it, goading the bull on themselves, so I had to get it right. This research was by far the easiest and most fun.
“Just recently, I discovered Azorean groups, organizations and individuals who’ve been kind enough to share their experiences and expertise with me so that I could improve the story even more. (A big shout out to Antonio Ribeiro and Edelberto DaSilva for sharing your knowledge and time.)
“We often think about novel research as this solitary, coffee-slurping, back-of-a-musty-library endeavor, but that hasn’t been my experience at all.
“Yes, I pored over the book resources I did have, but a great deal of my best research has been in emailing and communicating with Azoreans via social networks like Facebook. I found groups passionate about the islands (like Azores Nation) that are willing to share what they know as well as spread the word about the novel.
“Research is evolving as the Internet grows vaster. It is a wide open sea of information, but it is up to the writer to make sense of the immensity of it, to verify it, and to put it into a context that is palatable to the novel’s audience. In the end, the writer does what he or she can. The rest is up to the creativity of the imagination.
“I’m grateful I’ve had the great honor of sharing my love of the Azorean people, culture, and land with people around the world, many of whom had never even heard of the islands before. That alone makes this ten-year ride worth every moment.”